ART IN SALISBURY CATHEDRAL
Salisbury Cathedral is more than just a place of worship for the faithful; as well as being a tourist attraction it is home to a variety of artworks, some permanent but mostly an ever changing display of exhibitions. These vary from static displays of contemporary art to interactive displays of light, sound and colour. Some of these are truly amazing and worth going out of your way to visit.
Permanent Art on display at the Cathedral
The Walking Madonna by Elizabeth Frink
Perhaps the most memorable and iconic artwork in the grounds of the cathedral, this was originally intended to just be a temporary installation. The Walking Madonna is a life-size, plinth-less statue of a rather frail, older woman, walking away from the cathedral. She is dwarfed by the cathedral spire which soars over her diminutive frame, clad in a simple wimple and sackcloth habit, her eyes are lowered and there is a pensive expression on her face, but she is walking out with purpose, her body taut and focused.
Her position walking away from the cathedral and at ground level amongst the people is considered fairly revolutionary for ecclesiastical art, which traditionally has its statues positioned haughtily above the visitors, looking down on them as they walk around the site, forever superior to them.
She also has her back to the place of worship, not facing it or on the wall of it, which is usually done to ensure that the focus is always on the building. Instead, she mingles with the people, leaving the cathedral behind her and drawing their attention away from it. The intention behind this was that she is 'moving out from worship to be where human needs are to be met, not just in Salisbury but in the wide world'.
Installed in 1981 and still in situ, she is a popular part of the cathedral grounds, and has been included in many a visitor's photograph, their arms over her shoulders or holding her now-polished hand which is perpetually half-raised as she strides out. She actually faces the site of Old Sarum, where the first two cathedrals were, before the construction of our magnificent present day one.
She is also the start point for the popular long distance walk, the Avon Valley Path, which is from Salisbury Cathedral to Christchurch Priory some 34 miles away and which follows the River Avon. Walkers start their journey with her which seems entirely appropriate for the Walking Madonna.
The Glass Prism Memorial to Rex Whistler
Inside the cathedral in the Morning Chapel is a revolving glass prism with scenes of Salisbury Cathedral. It was created by famous glass engraver Laurence Whistler as a tribute to his brother, Rex Whistler, who died in 1944. Their parents at one time rented a house in the Cathedral Close and a blue plaque has recently been installed on their house.
Both brothers were artists. Rex was a well known artist who painted portraits of the society set of the Bright Young Things, extensive murals, covers for the Radio Times and even adverts. He signed up with the Welsh Guards when World War II broke out, becoming the burial officer of his regiment, but was killed just a month after D-Day when he left his tank to aid some fellow soldiers.
His brother, Laurence, started out as a poet, but soon turned to glass engraving, starting small with glasses and bowls before moving on to much larger designs, including work for the royals. Over 30 years he engraved every window in the Dorset church of Moreton, where Lawrence of Arabia is buried, and which are beautiful if you ever get the chance to visit.
He engraved several glass prisms over his career. The one in Salisbury Cathedral, designed as a memorial to his brother in 1987, is contained within a bronze lantern which was gifted by the Welsh Guards. It depicts the cathedral both inside and out, the spire, the nave and the central column in the Chapter House, as well as the trees in the grounds and the birds soaring high above the spire. As the glass turns, the images link together, the light shining from above giving them a 3D effect. The bright areas are said to represent life and eternity, the dark one represent death and suffering.
Crucifixion by Barbara Hepworth
Located in a corner of the Cloisters is Construction (Crucifixion): Homage to Mondrian by famed British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Created in 1966 and gifted to the cathedral by the sculptor, it is thought to explore the duality of Jesus Christ in geometric symbols and features bold colours from the palette of Piet Mondrian, which is referenced in the title of the piece. It weighs over 2.5 tonnes and had to be winched into the grounds over the top of the Cloisters.
It is a curious piece and not one I am overly enamoured with.
Temporary Art Exhibitions in Salisbury Cathedral
There are regular temporary exhibitions in the cathedral, some of which are amazing, such as the poppies cascading down the West Front on the centenary of 1918, or Sarum Lights which lit up the whole of the interior with an incredible light show, to celebrate 800 years since the foundation stone for the cathedral was first laid.
We have had a flock of white paper doves up the nave, which was echoed in the shop windows of Salisbury just after the Novichok incident, and ladders across the whole building in a rather twee exhibition which seemed to be about innocence.
There has been an enormous Henry Moore in the grounds and countless other works, both good and bad. Some, such as the blue flying saucer, outstayed their welcome having been installed just before the pandemic but then stuck here for the duration.
In June 2022, 'The Vanity of Small Differences' arrived in the cathedral. Six tapestries by Grayson Perry which provide a modern day interpretation of Hogarth's Rakes Progress, it was the first time they have been displayed in a religious setting. Truly fascinating, they document one man's progression through the social classes and imitate many of the great works of art from the centuries before.
Find out more
Read our Definitive Guide to Visiting Salisbury Cathedral >>
Read about a Walk around the Cathedral Close >>
Read about some of the Tombs and Memorials in Salisbury Cathedral >>